Home > Uncategorized > Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford, and the NFL’s Player Development Issue

Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford, and the NFL’s Player Development Issue

There was fairly big NFL news yesterday for a franchise in particular that has underachieved relative to expectations in 2013.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have pulled the plug on the Josh Freeman era.  Third round rookie, and non-prospect Mike Glennon replaces Freeman in the lineup.  The NFL is a sport that plays once a week and tries to feed a 24/7 sports news cycle off 15 hours a week of content, so big changes to the narrative of a season usually are limited to Sundays, but this is a significant move for the Buccaneers.

Josh Freeman was off to a dreadful start in 2013.  After having an excellent first 12 games to the 2012 season, showing all the signs of a young player on the rise, Freeman has looked lost dating back to December 2012.  Because this is likely a sample size blip in performance, I think Freeman’s value around the league isn’t going to be hurt too badly by his ouster in Tampa Bay.  He’s going to hit the market after this season and should get another chance to start (although without great job security) in his age 26 season.  That’s next year.  He’ll be 26 next year.

Freeman can explore a trade from the Buccaneers this year, but I can’t see very many fits for him around the league.  Houston would seem to be a fit — Freeman’s skills in particular seem like a great fit for that offense — but the Texans are a conservative franchise that is likely to show loyalty to Matt Schaub well past the point where it makes sense for them to show such loyalty.  Beyond Schaub, it’s unlikely that the Steelers are ready to pull the plug on Ben Roethlisberger, it’s equally unlikely that the Bengals are going to make a move with Andy Dalton (after the season, maybe?), and no quarterback has changed the narrative of his career quicker in the last three weeks than Philip Rivers (outside of Freeman, perhaps).

It doesn’t make sense for Jacksonville or Minnesota to go get Josh Freeman when those franchises are in line for a top three pick in the 2014 draft.  Perhaps the Rams feel the heat to make a switch at quarterback with Sam Bradford struggling, again, but there is no indication that the Rams have shorted Bradford’s leash any, let alone are prepared to make a change.  A quick run through the league suggests that there aren’t any teams in the market to trade for a quarterback, meaning that Freeman is likely to hit free agency at the end of the season.

Freeman, along with Jay Cutler and Michael Vick, will be the headline free agent quarterbacks.  Houston, Minnesota, and Jacksonville will head the list of teams looking for a veteran passer.  That’s not what this article is about, however.  The real issue here is the fourth team that will seemingly be in need of a veteran quarterback in free agency next year: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bucs will need to acquire a veteran QB next year because they were unable to turn Josh Freeman’s seemingly limitless potential and sporadically excellent single game performances into a top line player at the quarterback position.  They are not alone in their struggles.  The Jets badly botched Mark Sanchez’ development.  The Redskins screwed up Jason Campbell. The Bears very nearly ruined Jay Cutler.  The Vikings have not done anything of note with Christian Ponder.  The Browns managed to give up on Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden in the span of a year.  Bradford and Dalton are a little bit different, trying to max out the most of their talent.

It is one thing to struggle in the draft, where no team seems to have found a sustainable edge.  It is very costly to have poor drafts, but it is difficult to replicate draft success.  Developing players isn’t like that.  If you look at the track record of a guy like Andy Reid, or Jim Harbaugh, or Bruce Arians, or Mike McCoy, or Joe Philbin, you can see a history of competency in terms of developing the players on the roster, at the quarterback position in particular.  However, this is not a clear emphasis for every team.  Some teams spend 100% of their resources in player evaluation and don’t really conceptualize how valuable player development can be.

This is what the Buccaneers are guilty of, and it has become the defining difference between the Bucs and the Detroit Lions.  Remember, the Lions also selected a 21 year old blue chip quarterback in the 2009 draft, and Matthew Stafford was also overwhelmed early in his career by the demands of the quarterback position.  However, when Detroit hired Scott Linehan to be it’s offensive coordinator in 2009, they tasked him specifically with the development of Stafford.  And it was a really great hire by the Lions.  For one thing, Linehan was just disposed of as head coach of the Rams in the middle of the 2008 season, and so they did not have to concern themselves with the possibility that if Stafford developed as a passer, that Linehan would leave to get a head coaching position elsewhere.

The Detroit offense would not be the same without Stafford these days, but when he struggled with injuries early in his career, we saw Shaun Hill come off the Detroit bench and run that same offense even more efficiently.  The focus of the Detroit offense is collegiate in nature.  They use 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) a majority of the time, and they run fairly standard route concepts that are easy for the quarterback to read.  They also payed a ton of money to Calvin Johnson to continue to be one of the best in the business.  With Stafford pretty much getting to do largely the same stuff every week for the past five years, he has developed into a good, though not great, pro quarterback.

Although Freeman was given a top target in Vincent Jackson and another good receiver in Mike Williams to get the ball to, Tampa Bay never used their resources in a developmental fashion.  They’ve never really been a team that has been about letting passing routes develop.  You see a lot of slot receiver option routes and single side receiver isolation in the Bucs offense.  Those plays can work and keep the chains moving, but the lack of focus on repetition in the passing game is a major reason the Bucs could not get Freeman along as quickly as they would have liked.  Furthermore, the Tampa offense reminds me of the Dallas offense in that you see a lot of forced pass interceptions in real time, and then when you look at the plays on replay, the real blame for the interception falls equally on the receiver for his indecision as it does on the quarterback for being over aggressive.

It’s not that a quarterback absolutely cannot be developed this way, but it is a less intuitive way of doing things than what the Lions (and Eagles et al) do.  Not all basic passing games are created equal.  A simple approach works when it is easy for someone to understand.  It works a lot less well if the design is so that it doesn’t need to be understood.  When you run isolation routes in football, the quarterbacks’ timing and rhythm is paramount.  His ability to handle information — read defenses — isn’t.  And so on a high percentage of passing plays, if you have your quarterback not recognizing and reacting to coverage, then he’s not going to know out to do it, no matter how many snaps you give him.

The Bucs are the main culprits here in Josh Freeman’s failure to become the quarterback Tampa drafted him to be.  This doesn’t mean that the decision the Bucs made yesterday to turn the page is a bad one.  It’s just the first step of the Bucs Cover-Your-Ass, Save-Your-Job philosophy that we will see over the rest of the year.  And because all the talent the Bucs have, not just on defense, but at the skill positions as well, there is something here to be salvaged.  Benching Freeman is the first step in the Bucs trying to salvage their season.

It would have been far easier if they had just planned ahead to make Josh Freeman’s development the driving force behind a playoff push, instead of an obstacle they needed to move in order to push for the playoffs.

You’re up Mike Glennon.  I hope they’ve got a better plan for you.

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